Words and the World
I am a huge proponent of reading and literacy and not just because I’m an English teacher.
Even before I realized I was a teacher, I loved to read. Come to think of it, I loved to read before I was even a student. (Thanks, Mom!) As a young child I would read everything – books, magazines, the newspaper, street signs, advertisements, bumper stickers, license plates, etc., etc. etc. (Much of this led to my family becoming exasperated and irritated of my literacy skills, as you can imagine.) In early adolescence I found stories I could get lost in; I also became infatuated with the English language… poetry and prose opened my eyes and ears and soul to the sensations and sentiments that can be expressed between the words on the page.
In high school I pushed back against much of the literature that was forced upon me. I didn’t connect to it and I didn’t like the way it was written and it was too old fashioned or too boring to spend much time with. Instead I skimmed and read the first line and the last line and wrote the formulaic book reports while reading the stuff I really wanted to read on the side. I can’t remember one English teacher who actually took a positive interest in what I was reading until 12th grade. It is not an exaggeration to say that my aptly-named teacher, Mr. Grace, saved my life back in 1995…
A lifetime later and I am a teacher educator, working with future English/Language Arts teachers. I have found that most ELA folk fall into one of two categories: readers or writers. On the most part these two camps do not have very much overlap; writers love to write and they focus a lot of their time teaching writing while readers love to read and they spend a lot of time digging deep into literature.
(This is a generalization, of course, but most of the time it holds true.).
Teachers who love to read tend to have students who become avid readers. These teachers have shelves and shelves of books in their classroom and they know the exact perfect book for each of their students. They read critically and model this method with their students who (hopefully) go on to look at the world differently. Oftentimes these teachers were influenced by a that one great book – they read it at the exact perfect time in their life and it hooked them for life. Does this describe you? And although I fancied myself a writer back a lifetime ago*, I definitely lean towards the reading side of things, ELA-speaking.
*: One of these days I’ll tell you the story of the summer afternoon my next-door neighbor and I decided to create and sell books instead of lemonade as a way to compete with all the other neighbor kids. It did not end well.
But I've learned a thing or two from my own high school experience. And while the canon may have value to the folks (or robots?) who write the state and federal standardized tests, there is even more value in reading banned books and literature that disrupts the status quo and stories by authors who are neither White or male (much of this literature overlaps as you will discover – non-White authors often write stories that disrupt the status quo; many stories that are/have been on the banned books list also disrupt the status quo; have you noticed how many books by authors who do not identify as male or White are on the banned books list?). It is even more important to select books for our curricula that our students will actually enjoy and that our students feel represents them and that allow them to see the world differently.
And maybe this little blog post is a week or two late because school starts very soon or has already started and you’ve already selected the books your class will be reading this school year. And maybe you don’t have any power over which texts are allowed to be part of your classroom. And maybe you have given up on trying to engage with literature in a meaningful way with your students because all they have to do in answer a bunch of multiple-choice questions and write a couple prescribed and unoriginal essays to pass so what’s the point? But maybe I’ve reminded you about the potential and power of literature and how much influence it has. Maybe you’ll reminisce about the time that your English teacher read Langston Hughes aloud to your class as you sat in the back row completely enamored and entranced and you didn’t realize it at the time but you saw the world different after that. Maybe you remember that exact perfect book and how important and essential it was to you at that precise moment of your life.